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Patterson's presence lingers in Oakland executive race

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Although L. Brooks Patterson died last year, his presence still hangs over the Oakland County executive primary race.

In interviews with The Detroit News, three of the four candidates for the seat offered, without prompting, how they would either emulate or differ from Patterson, a Republican who served as county executive from 1992 until his death on Aug. 3.

Once a GOP stronghold, Oakland County has increasingly trended Democratic over the past two decades: Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won Oakland County handily in 2018, while Democratic presidential candidates have prevailed in the county since 1996.

The candidates say they'll try to continue Patterson's fiscal work, while one of the two Democrats in the race says he'll also focus on more progressive issues.

There are two Republicans and two Democrats on the Aug. 4 primary ballot. The winners will face off in the Nov. 3 general election.

In the Democratic primary, David Coulter, who currently holds the position, is being challenged by current Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner. Mike Kowall and Jeffrey Nutt will face off in the Republican race.

After Patterson's death, the Oakland County Board of Commissioners voted 11-10 along party lines to appoint Coulter, the first Democrat to hold the office. Coulter served as Ferndale mayor for nine years, and served two terms as a county commissioner.

Coulter said he'll draw on his government experience if he's elected to continue as executive — and he said he plans on "taking an entirely different tack than Brooks Patterson."

"Brooks was wonderful in economic development and supporting the business community, and we can build on those things," Coulter said. "But we can be both fiscally responsible and progressive."

Oakland County Executive David Coulter

Coulter pointed to a program launched during his tenure, Oakland 360, a public-private partnership that provides health care and support services to people without health insurance, as an example of what he said was a "new attitude in Oakland County."

"Expanding access to health care for the uninsured isn't an issue that would've been a priority of the previous administration," Coulter said. "I'm not the flashiest guy in the world, and I'm certainly no Brooks Patterson. But I'm a guy who has shown that I can work together with people to get things done.

"I'd like to see Oakland County moving in a direction that's fairer around issues of immigration and race, and the importance of valuing everyone."

Republican Kowall, a former state Senate majority floor leader and state representative from White Lake, said he's concerned about Oakland County's fiscal future. Kowall also said he wants to build on Patterson's economic success.

"I've done this before — gotten into elected office where we had to dig out of a lot of debt, and Oakland County is going to have that happen before too long if we continue," he said. "I'm looking forward to being careful how we spend money.

Kowall

"Brooks laid out a good roadmap from an economic development standpoint, but the road keeps changing. I'd like to bring in businesses that have never been established in Oakland County, or bringing back businesses that left decades ago.

He noted when he was chair of economic development in the Senate, there was $1.5 billion in the Rainy Day Fund.

"If you hear (Gov. Gretchen) Whitmer say we haven't had to tap into our federal unemployment resources (during the COVID emergency), that's because we put money away so we wouldn't have to do that," Kowall said. "It's a matter of planning, and I've done that repeatedly. I know we can do it again."

Meisner, who didn't mention Patterson, said he brings "extensive experience to the table as county treasurer for 11 years and six years as a state representative."

Meisner touted his 2004 bill that created drug courts in Michigan that give judges more flexibility in sentencing nonviolent offenders, and legislation he sponsored for stem cell research.

"I have a record of accomplishment," he said. "I also believe in shared sacrifice, which is why I took a voluntary pay cut of 10% during the pandemic. I think you need to lead by example."

Andy Meisner

Meisner said his top priority if elected would be to guide the county out of the COVID-19 emergency.

"On the health front, I'm going to fix the broken testing system that's causing multi-week delays in results," he said. "On the economic front, I'm not just going to throw money at the problem, but will work with small businesses, and support them in the form of business incubators to get them back to health."

When he was elected county treasurer in 2008, Meisner became the first Democrat elected countywide in 40 years and has been the top Democratic vote-getter in Oakland County for the past three cycles. 

While the other candidates pointed to their experience in government work as reasons why they should be elected, Nutt touted the fact that he's never held an elected position as a strength.

"I'm not a career politician, so I'm not beholden to special interests," the Republican attorney said.

Jeffrey Nutt, Republican candidate for Oakland County Executive, at his home in Troy, Michigan on July 15, 2020.

Nutt, who served as a judicial intern for former U.S. Chief Justice Warren Burger, said, "I'm the conservative voice in this race for the best health care, best transportation and government operations like Brooks Patterson pioneered."

Nutt said he has extensive experience writing grants, and said if elected, he would try to bring more federal dollars into the county.

"This is the hour when we need a county executive to focus on tech-driven new small businesses coming into the community, and applying the best lessons from the best economy this nation had ever seen until a few months ago," Nutt said. 

"Career politicians from both parties have been in office for decades, and every year, we drop in per capita income. Now is the time for major change. We need to disrupt the status quo."